Getting Unchained

How unfortunate that a Jewish mother must come to learn about the severity of the inequity inherent in the Jewish marital system through her own daughter’s struggle and pain.

Although the status of limbo is foreign to Judaism, many young women find themselves trapped and held in limbo through the conditional withholding of the Get, the Jewish document given by a Jewish husband to a wife to officially end the marriage.

Countless Jewish women around the world are forced to make painful concessions in exchange for the ability to move on with their lives and be freed from being spiritually bound up with often abusive husbands. In many cases, women are only able to obtain their Gets if they agree to pay large sums of money or give up their maintenance and/or child support. Often they are also forced to accept unrealistic and age-inappropriate demands for access to their children, even babies in arms. It’s not unheard of that some women are even pressurized to sign away the custody or residency of their children to their ‘husbands’ to receive a Get.

And many of the women who do make all or some of these concessions could be considered the lucky ones. Some men simply take pleasure in holding onto this leverage regardless, keeping their estranged wives in agonizing limbo for years on end.

The choice of men to use the Get in this manner isn’t the worst of it. What amazes me the most is the frequent indifference of the Jewish community and more specifically of the rabbinate, who are often complicit with regard to the plight of such women.

Having lived my life loving my Judaism, I am heartbroken when I see that religious leaders don’t live up to the ideals that I hold so dear. As painful as the ordeal of being denied a Get is for the entire family, nothing is so painful as feeling left out in the cold to fend for oneselves against the religious institutions that we rightfully had always assumed existed to protect us. Of course, this doesn’t happen to everyone everywhere, and there are some rabbinic and community leaders both in Israel and the Diaspora who fight zealously against this kind of abuse. But in many cases, this protection does not happen. The victims are stonewalled and shut out.

Thankfully, there are fabulous organizations such as ORA (the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot) that relentlessly fight the conundrum in which Jewish law is exploited to give men an unfair advantage in divorce and weaken the position of women in their most fragile hour.

Only the families of women trapped in such limbo can fully understand the helplessness, desperation and pain involved in being caught in such a situation. But while I believe the Get in its current inequitable form has become a trapping of Jewish law that must change and evolve to fulfill its original intended purpose of protecting the woman, what I have learned more than anything is that these women are not just victims of their husbands who are well aware of their ability to exploit their power, but of every rabbi, every community leader, every community member that fails to come to their aid or hear their call. The recalcitrant husbands must find no refuge in their communities and no leniency due to their perceived stature.

In post-apartheid South Africa today, because of the evolving law – the new Bill of Rights – which enshrines the rights of all people to the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom, it is considered unjust for a husband to obtain a civil divorce, while refusing to release his wife from a Jewish marriage. Even so, the receipt of a Get can still take many years due to the backlog in the South African courts; precious years in which a woman is prevented from being able to move on, start a new family, and find happiness.

Our daughters are not ours alone. They are the daughters of Israel. And we must never leave our daughters feeling that they alone must fend for themselves. Until the institution of the Get evolves out of the ‘dark ages,’ it is up to us, all of us, to protect our daughters.


About the Author
Rena Teeger was born in South Africa, and lived in Israel from 1979 to 1988, when she returned to South Africa with her family. She is the mother of four daughters. In 2004 Rena returned to live on a small rural moshav in central Israel. She is a qualified teacher who taught for many years at a religious Jewish day school. Rena spends her days writing and editing.